My friend Andrew Bentley and I have spent a lot of time talking about what else? Hair and culture. You see, Andrew has these amazing free-form locs and has spent a couple recent years living, working and traveling abroad in Brasil. We’ve had fascinating conversations about how his hair as the ability to transcend boundaries and connect not only with his own multi-ethnic roots, but diverse cultures around the world. Recently, Andrew launched a new blog called BeautifullyMixed in which he documents and celebrates people and families with bi-racial heritage. It’s inspiring, well-composed and, although I’m technically not of bi-racial heritage (although, who isn’t a little bit in this day and age), I was impressed by the blog and thought you would be too! Here’s an e-terview with Andrew himself talking about the project and his BeautifullyMixed life!
Andrew: My father is black and my mother is white. My interest in understanding the mixed race identity and my desire to help build a community of mixed race people and families started when I was very young and has grown ever since.
In second grade I came home crying after filling out a demographic questionnaire at school. I was instructed to only check one box and the options were black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander and other (or something like that). My teacher made me select “other.” That felt so horrible; like I was a friendless green martian. I came home crying to my parents. My mom told me to ignore the rules and fill out those boxes however I wanted. That was the first time I experienced life as a mixed race person. I wasn’t going to fit into the world’s boxes.
Now I realize my entire existence and my parent’s marriage was a form of rule breaking. Throughout my life I’ve tried to create my own colorful box and break some rules of my own when it feels right.
I grew up in Madison, WI, which is a fairly diverse city but there weren’t many mixed race kids around me. Three of my mixed race classmates and I started a club called “Brown Power” to try to feel more connected with something larger than ourselves. We even made buttons with a brown fist on them and wore them to school. Being mixed race is a total blessing but it was lonely in the 80s in southern Wisconsin.
Everyone struggles to find an identity as a teen but when no one around you looks like you, confusion is magnified. Which group to hang with in high school, how to wear your hair, which music to listen to, who to date, how to identify yourself to new people – these were all terribly complex questions for me; and still are.
In college I started to get this vision of hundreds of mixed race people and couples rallying together at a giant event. In my vision I get a chance to be on a stage in front of the crowd. I don’t know what I’m doing there and I don’t think it matters. The important point is the view that I would have. It would be heaven.
I moved to the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn a month ago and it seems that half of the couples around me are mixed race. It’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen. It feels like my vision from college is coming together. I’m nearly crying on my keyboard right now just thinking about it. And it’s not just black-white couples. I’ve seen almost every possible combination of races and cultures. The world needs to see this. I want that mixed race kid somewhere far away who is struggling to understand her complexion, her hair, to see my blog and know there are millions of people out their like her.
C: What have you learned so far during the creation of the site?
A: Due to the site I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about identity and interracial relationships. People I’ve known for years have opened up and talked about themselves in a whole new way.
One of the things that has surprised me is that interracial couples are still struggling to be accepted by their families. A Chinese American friend of mine recently told me how her mother, who she normally talks with everyday, didn’t talk with her for three months when she found out she was dating a black man. This seems to be more common than I was expecting. I hope the blog can act as form of support for people struggling with this. I want them to see all the beautiful mixed families and know that they too can make it and be happy. (The couple has been together for 1.5 years by the way. And the family situation seems to be slowly improving.)
The other thing I’ve learned is that I still have a lot of work to do to understand my own identity. My friend Mike, who is Chinese and Polish and featured on the blog, recently said something that’s had me thinking ever since. He said “…it was only recently that I became internally aware that ‘being mixed’ is distinct from ‘being half’.” This is an incredibly important insight. For my entire life I’ve described myself more by my components and less by the result of those components. (“I’m half black and half white”). I’m thinking about this a lot.
C: How has being mixed influenced your identity (loaded question, I know)?
A: I’m able to identify with and understand several communities at once. That can make life really fun. But at the same time I’ve always felt that I don’t 100% fit into one place. It’s sort of being in second grade and having to check one box again.
C: What is your favorite part of being BeautifullyMixed?
A: I feel like I have a license to talk with and befriend everyone on the planet. Also, it’s easy for me to identify with different groups of people.
And people see themselves in me. When I’m in Brazil people think I’m Brazilian, when I’m around Puerto Ricans, I look Puerto Rican. Some people think I’m Asian too. I did a genetics study and found out I’m 1% Asian — So I guess those people are right.
C: Where are your parents from?
A: My dad, who is black, is tall, muscular and had a goatee and a mini afro when my parents met in the mid-‘70s. He grew up in the Northern part of St. Louis. When my parents started dating he listened to a lot of live music and marched against the war. My mom is white, barely 5 feet tall, has blue eyes, and had straight blonde hair back then. She grew up in Madison, WI and played in the marching band in high school. Even though both sides of my family have been in the US for many generations (and hundreds of years) they are physical polar opposites. They look pretty funny together in some of their first photos.
My parents met on a blind date and are still together after 34 years of marriage. They don’t talk about it much but I view them as trailblazers. They married only eleven years after the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case struck down anti-miscegenation laws. It wasn’t easy for them and they faced some cruel things. I think that toughened them up and drew them closer.
C: What can we expect from BeautifullyMixed?
A: BeautifullyMixed is a celebration. I view the increasing number of mixed race babies and couples in the US as a positive sign for our world. Interracial marriages were 8.4% of total US births in 2010, up from 3.2% in 1980. It indicates that our level of compassion is rising and will continue to rise. The more we learn about other cultures and live in other cultures the stronger we’ll be.
My idea right now is to create a place that not only hosts photos of mixed people, but also tells family stories, has relevant essays and discussions; there’s so much on this topic that hasn’t been explored yet. But, BeautifullyMixed is very new. Ultimately I’m going to keep an open mind and let its audience take it where it wants.
C: Do you take submissions or how can people participate in your awesome new blog?
A: Thanks for calling my blog awesome. Yes! I want BeautifullyMixed to be community driven. Please submit photos at www.beautifullymixed.com/